As California’s efforts to enshrine access to abortion continue, the University of California and California State University are working to provide medical abortions on all campuses by July 1. January.
So far, none of the campuses in the state of California offer medical abortion, and access within the UC system varies from campus to campus. Both university systems, however, say they are on track to implement a law passed in 2019 requiring their student health centers to provide access to the pills.
According to Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research program at the University of California, San Francisco, up to 6,228 students may request medical abortions on UC and California State campuses each year. once they become available.
Making medical abortions available on college campuses would likely free up appointments at clinics across the state that could then be sought by people living in areas of California with limited access to abortion or in other areas of California. “Other states where it’s now illegal,” several reproductive health experts and advocates told CalMatters.
“Because there’s going to be this increase in people coming to California, all the clinics are going to have, you know, extra demand and kind of a struggle with capacity,” said Cathren Cohen, reproductive rights expert at the UCLA Center on Reproductive Health, Law and Policy. “While this won’t necessarily help everyone coming from out of state, it will generally increase the number of abortion providers.”
State Senator Connie Leyva, who drafted Senate Bill 24, said its importance could not have been anticipated years ago, before the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion in the United States
“We didn’t know how important this bill would be and this law would be based on the Supreme Court decision,” said Leyva, a Chino Democrat. “I think it’s even more important than it was when we did it.”
Securing access to abortion on university campuses
Each month, between 322 and 519 Cal State and UC students seek medical abortions, according to a 2018 report published by UCSF’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health.
According to the report, as many as two-thirds of these students must travel at least 30 minutes by public transport to get to the nearest off-campus clinic. According to the report, the average drug cost at facilities near campus is over $600 and the average wait time is one week.
“If part of the population is able to get pregnant, has to go through hurdles and overcome hurdles to end a pregnancy, and in trying to do that, they have to miss school, that’s kind of a problem. ‘fairness,’ said UCSF OB-GYN. and abortion specialist Josie Urbina. “You want everyone to have the same access, to have the same opportunities, to be able to focus and concentrate on their studies and their classes without having to take time off.”
As campuses begin to offer medical abortions, many students will spend less time on the road and see their out-of-pocket expenses decrease. Getting a medical abortion often involves a few appointments — in person or virtually — and receiving a prescription.
The University of California Student Health Insurance Plan, which is mandatory for college students, covers the costs of medical abortions.
However, students in the Cal State system — and those who waive the insurance requirement at UC — will have to pay to receive the drugs. Sacramento State University expects the cost of the drugs to be between $60 and $80.
“There are still many areas where access to abortion is perhaps less than perfect or varies between different campuses and surrounding communities, or for different students within those communities,” said Alex Miles, president of government relations for the UC Student Association. “Access to reproductive health care, in general, must be central and fully accessible.”
To meet the Jan. 1 deadline, California State and UC campuses without access to medical abortion — including UC San Diego, UC Davis, and UC Riverside — will need to both train providers and update information on websites so students know the service is available. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed some of that preparation, said Annie Sumberg, senior director of medical abortion access for Essential Access Health, a reproductive health advocacy and consulting group that helps campuses prepare.
Essential Access Health offers Zoom training sessions for UC and Cal State campus providers that provide insight into the new law, how to administer medical abortion, and how to support patients after their pregnancy ends.
Several campuses said they were considering offering telehealth appointments for medical abortion and allowing students to pick up pills at a pharmacy closer to home.
The FDA approved sending abortion drugs by mail in 2021, and demand for telehealth has increased during the pandemic. Physical exams and ultrasounds aren’t necessary to safely end a pregnancy, said Urbina, OB-GYN at UCSF.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellness Tina Hadaway-Mellis also discussed the possibility of having prescriptions sent to students. Increased access to telehealth, she said, has been one of the “very few silver linings as a result of the pandemic.”
“If (students) prefer to be somewhere that gives them a sense of privacy, or if they don’t live very close to campus, if they only come to campus one or two days a week, but they live an hour away, a telehealth appointment would be much more accessible and convenient,” Hadaway-Mellis said.
UC Berkeley has been offering medical abortions at the campus Tang Center since fall 2020, according to University Health Services spokesperson Tami Cate.
The campus has provided 34 medical abortions since 2020, and students can often get a same-day appointment, Cate said. Currently, UC Berkeley only administers medical abortions onsite, but it may add telehealth options in the future, she said.
Allow access to abortion seekers from the community and out of state
Referring students to campus medical centers is especially important, abortion rights activists say, as California expects a surge of people seeking abortions in states where it is now illegal.
UCLA’s Center on Reproductive Health, Law, and Policy expects the influx could reach 8,000 to 16,100 people each year.
There are also several areas of the state where abortions are already difficult to access. These “abortion deserts” are particularly concentrated in California’s Central Valley, said Larissa Mercado-López, chair of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Fresno State University.
“We have vast tracts of land without abortion providers or even comprehensive reproductive health clinics,” Mercado-López said.
Forty percent of California counties currently do not have an abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization. There are several Cal State and UC campuses located in these areas, Cohen said, including CSU Bakersfield, CSU Fullerton and CSU Stanislaus.
Regardless of where individual campuses are in implementing the new law, advocates stress the importance of raising awareness about abortion services at student health centers.
“It’s not well advertised,” said Esmeralda Quintero-Cubillan, president of the UC Student Association. “Most students, if you asked them, wouldn’t know that we offer medical abortions or that you can seek reproductive health services.”
Many anti-abortion groups, including the California Family Council, opposed requiring public universities to provide medical abortion before it is passed by the legislature, but did not return CalMatters’ requests for comment.
Pro-abortion activists say they are preparing to educate campus communities about the availability of medical abortion. URGE, a group that organizes young people in support of reproductive rights, hosts presentations on medical abortion for gender studies classes and students pursuing health-related careers.
The presentations highlight the safety of medical abortions, introduce the public to the new law and provide insight into the reproductive justice movement, said Callie Flores, a UC Merced student who serves on the group’s student advisory board. The council also conducts anonymous surveys that ask students for their thoughts on what their campuses should be doing to support access to abortion, and shares the results with campus health centers.
“We’re trying to push like that, you know, being abortion positive means there’s no shame, no stigma, and no excuses related to abortion,” Flores said. “Abortion is not a swear word. It’s not a bad decision. It’s a decision people make for themselves, and it’s totally valid.
Reeling after Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Flores said activism gave him purpose and made him feel like he was making a difference.
“I have to do something with this anger,” she said.